Barack Obama added to Trump's ever-growing 'treason' list

Presidential accusations of treason have somehow become the background noise of our political lives. None of this is healthy.
Image: Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office
President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 10, 2016.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file
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By Steve Benen

In early May, Donald Trump started tweeting hysterically about something he called "Obamagate." Though no one was at all sure what the president was talking about, the Republican called the conspiracy theory, among other things, the "biggest political crime in American history, by far!"

It was against this backdrop that a reporter asked Trump at a White House press conference what crime, specifically, he believes Barack Obama committed. "You know what the crime is," the president said. "The crime is very obvious to everybody."

The crime was not very obvious to everybody. In fact, given the circumstances, it seemed more than a little ridiculous that Trump was effectively telling the nation that he'd uncovered the biggest political crime in the history of the United States -- a scandal so severe that it makes Watergate "look small time" by comparison -- but he had no idea how to describe it. The president was certain that Obama was guilty of obvious crimes, none of which Trump could identify.

Yesterday, as Matt Stieb noted, the Republican finally got specific.

On Monday, the president finally found the criminal statute that he's looking to pin on his predecessor. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, host David Brody prompted Trump to identify the specific charge he is accusing Obama of. "Treason, treason -- it's treason," Trump said.

The president added, "[T]hey've been spying on my campaign."

To the extent that reality has any meaning, let's pause to acknowledge a handful of relevant details. First, to think Barack Obama committed treason is insane. Second, no one spied (or is currently spying) on the Trump campaign. Third, spying and treason are not synonymous.

But as important as those details are, it's the bigger picture that's even more striking. In Donald Trump's mind, "treason" is increasingly a word he uses to describe the actions of people he dislikes. In the not-too-distant past -- which is to say, before January 2017 -- it would be an extraordinary thing for a sitting president to accuse anyone of treason.

But in the Trump era, it's become alarmingly routine. Last October, the president said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may have committed treason. That came days after Trump called for a treason investigation into House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

A week earlier, Trump accused White House officials who spoke to the intelligence community whistleblower -- possible witnesses to presidential wrongdoing -- of treason.

As we discussed at the time, this came on the heels of the president raising the prospect of a treason investigation into Google, which came on the heels of Trump accusing some in federal law enforcement of "treason," which came a month after the Republican accused congressional Democrats of engaging in "treasonous" behavior.

As regular readers know, these weren't isolated incidents. In 2018, the New York Times published a rather extraordinary op-ed, written by "a senior official in the Trump administration," describing a White House in which "many" officials work diligently behind the scenes to subvert Trump. The president suggested the newspaper may have committed "treason" by agreeing to run it.

A few months before that, the president was so bothered by media coverage of his summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-un that he described the reports as "really almost treasonous."

And a few months before that, while whining that Democrats failed to applaud his State of the Union address to his satisfaction, the president said Dems "certainly didn't seem to love our country very much" -- and then raised the prospect of Democratic "treason."

Under normal political conditions, if a sitting American president were to accuse his immediate predecessor of "treason," it would've caused a political earthquake. There's a good reason for that: while assorted partisans trade barbs and insults every day, treason is a capital offense.

And yet, in 2020, presidential accusations of treason have somehow become the background noise of modern American life. When Trump accused Obama of treason yesterday, some took note, but it was not a stop-the-presses moment. On the contrary, for much of the political world, it was just another Monday, with the sitting American president peddling crazypants nonsense, just as he would on any other Monday.

None of this is healthy.